Author Archive

The Story of Stuff**

Posted on: March 22nd, 2010 by Patrice Frey


**Actually, only like 60% of our stuff

About three years ago, when I first started at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I had the unsettling realization that the preservation community was really the only group out there calling attention to the waste and harmful environmental impacts associated with America’s endless cycle of building demolition and reconstruction. And it's worth mentioning -- again -- that we demolish and rebuild a lot. The Brookings Institution estimates we will demolish and replace about 27% of our building stock between 2005 and 2030.

Perhaps the lack of attention given to existing buildings has something to do with the fact that new construction drives so much of the American economy – just think about how the ultimate barometer of the health of the American economy is new housing starts. You won’t see the National Association of Home Builders or other industry trade groups beating down the doors of Congress in support of reusing and rehabilitating what’s already there.

The design and development industry isn’t much help. Architects generally prefer to design new buildings and make their mark upon the world in ways unblemished and unconstrained by the designs of those that have come before them. Developers often don’t want the hassle of dealing with existing buildings – who knows what’s lurking behind those walls and how much it will cost to fix it?

And as for green building and environmental types? On the issue of building reuse, there’s little to distinguish most of them from their architect, developer, and industry brethren. Look no further than green building rating systems, in which few points are generally allocated to the reuse of materials in situ, and far more points are awarded for the purchase of new “green” materials.

In sum: nobody looks at building reuse as a barometer of, well, anything.

But I like to imagine that I’ve seen a few glimmers of hope in recent months. This brings me to Annie Leonard, and the remarkable Story of Stuff Project. Annie Leonard has made it her life’s mission to explain to people where it is all their stuff comes from – whether it’s paper, plastic bottles, the clothes on your back, or the computer your reading this on -- and the heavy impacts that all that stuff has on the planet and the people who live here.

Annie Leonard’s viral online video, The Story of Stuff, was recently turned into a book. “Put simply,” she writes “if we do not redirect our extraction and production systems and change the way we distribute, consume and dispose of our stuff – what I sometimes call the take-make-waste model – the economy as it is will kill the planet.”

You tell em’ Annie! Surely, this visionary must see how destructive the take-make-waste model is when it comes to constructing the buildings around us. After all, 82 billion square feet of buildings will be demolished between now and 2030! That’s a lot of, ahem, stuff.

But not so fast. The Story of Stuff devotes all of two of its 200 + pages to construction and demolition – and those pages focus on the virtues of deconstruction. Despite the fact that about 40% of the material used in the US economy every year go to the construction industry, and that we produce 325 million tons of construction and demolition debris a year, Ms. Leonard writes only about the promise of deconstruction -- the dismantling of buildings to recycle and reuse building elements and divert waste from the landfill.

I think we’ve missed the point. Deconstruction of what we already have should be the last option considered. First consideration should be given to using what we’ve already got.

I saw Annie Leonard speak last week at Politics & Prose in DC last week – this was the first stop on her book tour. She spoke engagingly about how we need a total change in paradigm to transform the way we see and act in the world. A shift from a world that consumes endlessly and without regard to the environmental and human costs, to a world that is more grounded in the values of resource protection and creating communities that serve real human needs – not imagined ones.

She couldn’t be more right. But that shift in paradigm applies to our thinking about all resource consumption, including the 40% of our materials that go to the construction industry every year. It’s a big, thorny, ugly problem, and we’ve got to deal with it.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Home Star: What Does it Mean for Historic Homes?

Posted on: March 3rd, 2010 by Patrice Frey 1 Comment


Yesterday afternoon in a press conference in Georgia, President Obama rallied for the $6 billion Home Star proposal – the re-named and much touted “Cash for Caulkers” program that we’ve been hearing about since December (see previous posting).  This program will provide significant cash rebates for homeowners who take steps to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

The preservation blogosphere and listservs this morning are buzzing with frustration and concern that window replacement was again singled out as a key retrofit strategy, with the President noting that “Energy-efficient windows …  are products that are almost exclusively manufactured right here in America," and that  "it's very hard to ship windows from China."

Well, that may be true.  But it’s also well established that retrofit activities – that is the labor to carefully repair and weatherize existing elements of homes – creates more jobs than just buying more new stuff.  It’s also well established that the energy conservation gains from new windows just aren’t that significant compared to the cost.   The President and Congress would do well on the jobs and energy front to think beyond just supporting the purchase of more goods, and instead encourage homeowners to make the most responsible and informed decision possible about how to go green at home.  Fortunately, one path under Home Star provides the option to do just that.  (See more below)

Turns out it’s not just the preservation community that is concerned about the message around windows – we’ve got good company in the environmental community. Check out this piece from Tree Hugger this morning, which highlights the senselessness of pushing window replacement, and features information from the Rocky Mountain Institute on the most effective steps homeowners can take green their home, ranked by cost of saved carbon.  Window replacement is towards the very bottom --  number 36 in list of 39 actions home owners can take.  As Tree Hugger notes “it is so far down the list in terms of energy saved per dollar spent that it is almost off the bottom.”

Window and door weatherization on the other hand?  Well, that’s towards the top half of the list – but it’s noteworthy that lots of other energy conservation strategies come before that too.  Enough said.

The Low Down on Home Star Proposal– From a Preservation Perspective

Under Home Star, there are two paths – one that is performance based (the gold path) and one that is product based (the silver path). Under the gold path, homeowners will work with professionals who audit their homes and offer recommendations about the best – and least expensive – options for improving energy efficiency.  (Safe bet those auditors will offer recommendations that are more in line with guidance provided by Rocky Mountain Institute than with info provided by window manufactures.)  That’s great news for owners of historic homes, who will have the option to use storm windows rather than buy replacement windows.

Unfortunately, as the silver path language is written currently, storm windows are not listed among the eligible products.  The National Trust is working hard with members in both the House and Senate to include language in Home Star that will allow owners of homes that are listed in or eligible  for the National Register of Historic Places (either individually or as part of a historic district) to purchase storm windows instead of new windows.  Stay tuned for news on how you can help us send Congress the message that it’s important for home owners to have a choice about how to retrofit their historic homes.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

The Real Scoop on LEED and Preservation

Posted on: March 2nd, 2010 by Patrice Frey 9 Comments


Last week, NPR did a piece on Morning Edition about the intersection of sustainability and preservation. The piece profiled Paul Song, who, after demolishing his home, is now building a $1 million LEED-Platinum house which will be the first “100% energy-independent” home in Santa Monica, CA. The preservation view was thoughtfully articulated by Linda Dishman, Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Linda pointed out that keeping existing homes often has environmental value and that the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards don’t do a particularly good job of recognizing the value of building reuse.

This piece was a great way to get a large audience’s attention on the sustainability/preservation nexus, and I’d never refuse the opportunity to catch the ear of all those people out there as they’re drinking their morning coffee. But unfortunately the reporter left listeners with a couple of mistaken impressions, including that LEED and historic buildings are incompatible. Visitors to this blog will know this is far from true (see our very own Robert H. Smith Visitors Education Center at President Lincoln's Cottage – which is LEED-Gold -- for proof. The project was even named the 2009 “Project of the Year” in the New Construction/Major Renovation category by the U.S. Green Building Council’s National Capitol Region chapter.)

There’s a big difference between saying “we think more points should be awarded for building reuse” and saying “LEED doesn’t work for historic buildings.” Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t pick up on this distinction, and listeners are given the impression that green building and preservation just don’t mix. Nothing could be further from the truth, actually.

Ralph DiNola, a well known expert on preservation and sustainability, has written an excellent blog post in response to NPR’s piece and digs a little deeper into the relationship between LEED and preservation. Have a look!

Now if only we could get Ralph to go work for NPR...

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

EPA Hosts Symposium on Green Preservation

Posted on: January 27th, 2010 by Patrice Frey 1 Comment


During the last few years, I’ve been to more than my fair share of conferences on sustainability and preservation. But last week, I had the chance to attend a symposium that was really the first of its kind. The Midwest office (Region 5) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a Green Historic Preservation Symposium, at which nearly 300 preservationists, green building, and assorted other environmental types gathered to discuss the intersection of historic preservation and sustainability. This is the first such federally-led symposium that I know of, and EPA deserves much credit for taking the lead and hosting this gathering.

The full-day event included sessions on incentives for greening historic buildings and the disconnect between green building rating systems and the value of building reuse, as well as a lively discussion on the difficulty of encouraging the retrofit rather than replacement of existing windows. An afternoon exercise led by Carla Bruni, a consultant to the Chicago Bungalow Association, helped participants focus on some of the key advantages – and obstacles – to greening historic buildings.

Most importantly, the day opened up what I believe will be an extraordinarily valuable line of communication between the EPA and the preservation community about a range of issues that affect the environment and preservation – from the possibility of creating Energy Star guidance specific to historic buildings, to working together on any number of issues with the EPA, Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Sustainable Communities Program.

With my recent work on the National Trust’s life cycle assessment research, which will evaluate the value of building reuse compared to new construction, I’m also particularly eager to see the EPA’s continued participation in efforts to improve life cycle data for buildings – something that is badly needed. There are too few in the environmental and green building community who consider the environmental costs of our disposable building culture, and EPA could help significantly to improve the data and tools needed to understand the impacts of building construction.

As I understand it, the EPA will be issuing a summary of the symposium in the next few weeks, as well as posting power points from the various presenters. I’ll provide the link on once the EPA has them online. Meanwhile, feel free to share any ideas you have about how the EPA and preservation community might work together to promote building reuse and the greening of our historic buildings.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.


The beginning of a new year brings all kinds of interesting top ten lists, including the Earth Advantage Institute’s top ten green trends to watch in 2010.   Many of items to make the list aren’t too surprising – for example we should expect to see more net-zero buildings and more sustainable building education.   But I was happily surprised to see Earth Advantage’s prediction that we will see more efforts to understand the  environmental impacts of building materials is 2010.

“With buildings contributing roughly half the carbon emissions in the environment, the progressive elements in the building industry are looking at ways to document, measure, and reduce greenhouse gas creation in building materials and processes. Lifecycle analysis (LCA) of building products is underway by third party technical teams, while others are working with federal and state building authorities to educate staff, create monetized carbon credits, and develop effective carbon offset policies. This effort will be heightened once a federal cap-and-trade mechanism is launched in this country.”

While there’s been a lot of focus on green buildings in the last decade, most of that was directed to understanding how we can make buildings more efficient in their operation or location.  There hasn’t been nearly as much focus on understanding the environmental impacts of the materials used to construct or rehabilitate buildings.   Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) -- that somewhat daunting sounding term --  is the process by which we can understand the environmental impacts of a product through all phases of its life, including extraction of natural materials, manufacturing, construction, use and disposal.  LCA evaluates several different aspects of products, such as  the carbon released and energy used by the product, as well as other factors such as toxic emissions released into our air, water and soil.

The Department of Energy funds and houses the U.S. Life Cycle Inventory Database, and is thankfully ramping up its efforts to expand the availability and quality of data for all kinds of materials – from those used in packaging to housing.   Organizations such as the USGBC – which is moving towards a life-cycle based rating system – also have a strong interest in improved understanding of the environmental impacts of materials.   And, as Earth Advantage notes, there’s increasing interest in this subject because of the potential to turn carbon savings into money under a federal cap-and-trade program.  All of this may seem kind of nerdy, and kind of wonky, but for those of us who really want to understand the environmental impacts created by constructing new stuff  -- namely buildings --  this is great news.

We at the National Trust for Historic Preservation are also stepping up in 2010 and making our own contribution to understanding the environmental impacts of building materials and construction, thanks to a generous grant from the Summit Foundation. Last summer, we held a symposium on Life Cycle Assessment and historic preservation with experts on both subjects to  identify the research and tools needed to better understand the environmental value of reusing buildings.

After working through the recommendations from the symposium, the National Trust issued a Request for Qualifications for a research study to quantify the value of building reuse, and we’re now in the process of interviewing candidates to complete the study.  Our research will evaluate the environmental  impacts of building reuse compared to new construction using a number of typical scenarios, such as the demolition of a single family home and replacement with a new, green home.    We’re hopeful that we’ll have results to share by the end of the year, and that these results will help to shed light on why we should care about reusing buildings.

Stay tuned to PN for more info.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.